YWCA: It’s Time for Australian Women to Take the Lead

As SheRa Mag is firmly grounded in making the world a better place for women—who, would you believe it, in (almost 2015) are still considered a minority group—we like to profile fellow organizations and movements that are fighting the good fight for female empowerment. For our Australiana Issue, we decided to bring to the forefront the largest feminist movement in the country, YWCA. I spoke to YWCA Australia’s Caroline Lambert and YWCA Canberra’s Zoya Patel about leadership, sexism, and why this is one of the most exciting times for feminism in recent history.

Don’t dismiss the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) as the female version of the YMCA: it’s one the world’s largest women’s movements with representation in 125 countries and an outreach of 25 million women and girls. Advocating for peace, justice, human rights, freedom, and care of the environment, YWCAs have been spearheading campaigns to raise the status of women for over 150 years.

The story begins in 1855 when the founding YWCA members hung around King’s Cross Station in London looking to help the young women who were coming down from the countryside to work or those en-route to become nurses with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War. The YWCA soon spread all over the world, coming to Australia in the 1870s. All mainland states and territories have a YWCA branch (that are secular; “membership is open to people of all faiths and people of no faith”), which deliver national programs to more than a quarter of a million women, men, and children.

“We focus on young women’s journeys towards self-esteem, leadership, and confidence,” Lambert explains. She fires some statistics at me and while I’m disheartened, I’m not surprised: less than 30% of federal parliamentarians across Australia are women; on the Australia Stock Exchange 200 listed companies, less than 15% have women on their boards; Australian sporting institutions, too, have very low numbers of women represented in leadership roles. “What we want to do is create pathways that, from an early age, encourage women to understand that they can be leaders and to transform the notion of where leadership can be displayed. While we are concerned with political and business representation, we also see the importance of understanding leadership in the family, the community, and in a range of social movements,” Lambert continues.

Through programs such as Every Girl, YWCA Encore, Y-Aspire, and She Leads, focusing on girls from the age of 8 (as research shows that girls’ self-esteem plummets at the age of 9) all the way through to adult women, YWCAs hope to achieve their vision of helping girls and women reach their potential. “We believe that women’s unique perspectives and experiences must be heard, and that the community will benefit as a whole from women’s contribution to leadership,” says Patel.

Advocacy is a huge part of what the YWCAs do. Since 1916, the movement has advocated globally for paid parental leave. YWCA Australia consistently advocates for fully funded programs that focus on respect and relationships, and that consequently help prevent violence against women. Most recently, Lambert tells me that the YWCA has called on the G20 nations to commit to a 25% increase in the gender pay gap by 2025, with Australian businesses also being asked to step up to the challenge.

YWCA Canberra Frugal Feast

Zoya Patel (right) and a corporate partner during this year’s Frugal Feast, a fundraising appeal which aids the more vulnerable members of our community during the festive season (source: YWCA Canberra)

YWCAs quantify their successes by the programs they run, their fundraising work, as well the less measurable but proud moments that make it all worthwhile. Lambert reminiscences about two such moments: one was seeing young women living with HIV present at the International AIDS Conference from a progressive, feminist, theological perspective that stood in solidarity with sex workers and advocated for girls to have access to sexual reproductive health education. The other was in 2012 on the first International Day of the Girl, when some of the Every Girls were invited to Parliament House to a reception hosted by Julia Gillard. “It was a few days after the famous misogyny speech and after Gillard gave her speech and sat down, one of the girls leaned over, patted her on the arm, and said: ‘Good job, Prime Minister.’ It was just fabulous.”

One of the biggest achievements for YWCA Australia this year has been the She Speaks survey, which brought together the voices of 1,600 girls and women aged 15 to 30 into the spotlight. “What it found it is that girls overwhelmingly experience Australia as a sexist community but they want to be part of the solution, they want to be leaders, and they want to see the current leadership promoting change and stopping gender-based stereotypes that they find inhibit them in realizing their full potential in their work life, relationships, health, and in the way that they plan for their future,” Lambert says.

Lambert, who believes that Australia is a sexist country (“you just have to look at the fact that women retire, on average, with less than a million bucks than men”), was not surprised by the rather disappointing survey results: only 23% thought there was effective leadership in public life, 90% reported that women experience discrimination, 80% believe gender equality has not been achieved, and 73% think that men and women are not valued equally. In addition, 30% felt unable to seek help when experiencing violence in their relationship, and, even more worryingly, 30% felt that they were unable to identify problematic behaviors in relationships.

“But the statistic I’m most proud of,” says Lambert, “is that close to 96% of the girls report that they can now identify their strengths, and 86% are confident to tell their peers about them. And I think that’s so fantastic.”

I agree with Lambert that we experience discrimination daily, whether in the jokes that people tell, the way that women are observed in the street, or the way they are represented in the media. “In Australia, we need to look at the way in which Julia Gillard was subjected to misogynistic attacks and more recently the Karl Stefanovic suit experiment to realize the extent of the sexism and discrimination.”

YWCA protests

“What is inspiring, however, is that 71% of the young women interviewed said that they do want to be leaders in the future and I think that this shows resilience of women who are not treated equally. Unfortunately, for some people in our community, gender is more important than brains,” Lambert says. Almost half of the participants surveyed believe that changing behaviors and cultures towards employed women and men is the most effective strategy to deal with these problems. Last month, the Gender Equality in the Workplace Agency released its employers of choice awards. Sadly, only 76 companies in Australia were seen as being Employers of Choice for Gender Equality—with YWCA Canberra being given this accolade.

With so many things that can be done to start changing behaviors—flexible parental leave programs, family friendly workplaces, funding for childcare programs, an increase in the number of part-time roles, and job sharing—I’m dismayed that the government of one of the most ‘progressive’ and wealthiest countries in the world is not doing more.

Reshaping some of these practices to ones where, for example, men can ask freely for flexible working hours so they can be more engaged in caring for their children will start to fundamentally transform gender stereotypes in our society. “Our current employment context doesn’t take into account, for example, that school kids get 12 weeks of holidays a year and how to juggle this,” Lambert highlights. “We know anecdotally that sole parents, in particular, will stay in casual employment so that they can clock on and clock off during school holidays. Surely in 2014 we can come up with a better solution.”

But Lambert also underlines that it’s as much about changing the culture within our communities as it is about implementing policies. She believes that men should be interjecting into conversations at the pub and denouncing rape jokes. She believes we should be having discussions about privilege and what that means. And she believes that our role models have to be carefully chosen (and in fact, 37% of the She Speaks participants said that having ‘visible role models’ is an effective way of dealing with gender-based problems). Having Redfoo as a judge on X Factor, a man who condones violence against women and tells women to shut up and just be there for sex, is just not good enough.

As so much of what the YWCAs do concerns female leadership, I wanted to gauge what both Lambert and Patel think about the current state of female leadership—or lack thereof—in Australia. “The experiences Julia Gillard endured were somewhat depressing for women because they showed that there are some very deep-seated—both personally and culturally—ideas which naturalize men as leaders,” Lambert says.

Patel tells me that even though the “strides that we have made towards gender equality in Australia have been bold,” women are massively underrepresented in leadership positions and the continuing gender wage gap—women still earn 17.5% less than their male counterparts for the same work—is most alarming. “These statistics are real. They demonstrate an attitude and an unconscious gender bias that form a significant barrier to women participating in the workforce. Since the change of government last year, the number of women in top political positions has dropped drastically, which demonstrates that there is a long way to go for female leadership in Australia.”

Still, Lambert remains positive and believes that we are “in the most astronomic upswing that we’ve seen in the last 2,000 years. In 2014, I am able to have four degrees, a mortgage, and be the CEO of a non-for-profit organization. These are markers of progress that would have been inconceivable to a woman 100 years ago.”

Being a feminist movement, YWCA faces considerable challenges, which include refining approaches on how to create lasting change and getting funding. The mainstream backlash against feminism and changing the cultural perceptions of what is meant by ‘feminism’ is also an obstacle, Patel explains. “The cultural perception of feminism as outdated, unnecessary, and anti-men is significantly damaging. It also presents a significant challenge in terms of making the YWCA movement relevant to young women, who don’t see themselves as disadvantaged in society.”

This opens for a wider conversation and I ask Patel what her thoughts about the feminist movement are in general. She tells me that these days, ‘feminist’ issues in Australia are concerned with pay equity, women’s leadership, and violence against women. “Interestingly, I feel that there has been a shift away from issues such as abortion, which might be due to an incorrect assumption that abortion rights are protected in most states and territories,” Patel adds. Another recent change has been an increased focus on feminism as an identity—and we all know how hot of a topic this is; we just have to remember the backlash against Time trying to ban the word ‘feminist’ earlier this year. “A lot of the debate around feminism is focused on the idea of its relevance, rather than single issues within the movement,” says Patel.

“Card-holding feminist” Lambert thinks the movement is “louder and more strategic than it has ever been.” The fact that it has entered the mainstream so aggressively and that we now have a sense of solidarity due to online tools makes this an exciting time. “We are able to drive our own media content and while I think it is encumbered on us to continue to engage with the media contrary of positions that are not aligned with our philosophical approach to life, what has always been a challenge for social change movements is isolation,” she says. A vibrant online community of feminist-based publications or groups likes Destroy the Joint, The Hoopla, Mamma Mia, and Daily Life, and feminist writers like Clementine Ford and Ruby Hamid, enable feminist critique to be accessed by more people.

Since both the YWCA and SheRa Mag are strongly grounded in female empowerment, I ask Lambert and Patel to conclude on some advise for young women and girls and what they can do to empower themselves. “I think the impetus should be placed less on the idea of women and girls ‘empowering themselves’ and more on making the necessary systemic changes to empower women and girls in a society that is still influenced by patriarchy,” Patel begins. She emphasizes that we need more encompassing change; we need to make sure women and girls must have the opportunity to participate fully and freely in the workforce, have access to sexual and reproductive health rights and education, create a culture free from gender-based violence, and ensure that women are supported to take on leadership positions.

Besides loving themselves, practicing using their voice, and being less concerned about what others think of them, young women and girls, Lambert says, need to understand that we do live in a patriarchal society. “There are structures, behaviors, and cultures that will militate against girls simply because they are girls. And that if they fail or are made to feel less than they are, girls need to understand that it is as much about the patriarchy as it is about them.” In our society, gender can both impede and be an enormous source of strength and resilience to women. And that is why, alongside movements like the YWCA, we have to keep on fighting.

Title image courtesy of YWCA Canberra.

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